It has been 40 years since Steven Spielberg changed the landscape of summer movies forever, thanks in part to a fussy mechanical shark named Bruce. As Jaws nears its 40th anniversary on June 19 and heads back to a few theaters for a limited release, it is still a minor miracle that Spielberg’s vision came together in the face of so much adversity to deliver not only the first summer blockbuster, but a practically flawless display of fright, thrills, adventure, and what is occasionally overlooked and well-crafted acting performances from everyone involved.
The story is familiar to anyone and everyone, so there is no need to walk through plot points. Rather, let’s think about what makes Jaws such a perfect cinematic experience. First things first, the opening scene, and the attack on the young girl that happens all below the water. This jarring opening sequence, with the young woman writhing in pain being dragged helplessly around the shallow waters of Amity Island, sets the stage for the entire picture. It is horrific, but remains unclear, shrouded in mystery and darkness. The audience only knows something horrible has happened to the girl, but they never see what it is directly. The suspense launched within this opening scene permeates the entire film.
One of the most powerful aspects of Jaws is that crucial suspense, which builds through a fear of the unknown or the unseen. The shark doesn’t appear until well into the second act, which has become the very template for how to effectively build suspension in a creature feature. And yet, the attack on the young woman in the beginning, the ill-fated Kitner boy attack, and a number of close calls all happen in the first half of the film and are much more effective thanks to a malfunctioning shark. Bruce the mechanical shark (named after Spielberg’s lawyer) didn’t want to cooperate and failed to work properly for a majority of the shoot, forcing Spielberg to reframe several of the shots of the shark stalking people, the camera drifting below the water from the monster’s point of view, therein hiding it until absolutely necessary. Talk about a blessing in disguise. The problems with the production helped create a film that is a masterpiece of structure.
Not everything that made the film such a masterpiece was an accident; that would do a disservice to the power of Spielberg the storyteller, who is an absolute master at bringing familial life into extraordinary circumstances.
Jaws is not entirely about that 25-foot Great White stalking unsuspecting summer vacationers at Amity Island. The true heart and soul of the film are the three brilliant performances from Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and the indispensable (but difficult) Robert Shaw, whose shark hunter Quint adds some spice. Scheider, as new police chief Brody, must contend with a bloodthirsty shark, and the bureaucrats of Amity Island, namely Larry the Mayor (Murray Hamilton), who know the importance of summer dollars to the sustainability of the island through the harsh winter months. Despite the ongoing pressure to keep the beaches open, Brody knows he is in over his head, and employs Hooper, a Marine Biologist, played by Dreyfuss.
While Brody and Hooper make some headway, the shark is still loose in the shallow waters, which is why Quint must be brought in. This trio is perhaps the best balance every put to celluloid. Brody’s dogged determination and earnest need to save the island he is sworn to protect, Hooper’s science and forward thinking, Quint’s “street smarts” and a hint of madness all come together in perfect harmony. And what sends it over the top, what really congeals this relationship between these men – all from different backgrounds, all with different motivations, but now out alone on the water with one common goal – is one of the greatest speeches in all of film:
The undeniable magnetic roles at the heart of Jaws are what elevate a typical thriller picture into something magical. When the three finally do set sail the audience has experienced these shark attacks on such an intimate level – with these poor unsuspecting citizens of Amity Island, and with Brody, who wants nothing more than to help – we feel a kinship to the kill. It keeps the stakes high not only for the members of the boat, but the audience who is alone at sea right along with these three men.
Jaws has not lost a single step at 40. In 40 more years, it will remain as such, because of the flawless execution Spielberg and his production team didn’t even realize they were pulling off with every shark malfunction. It made audiences literally fear the water in 1975. While it may not do that thanks to its familiarity, it no doubt will make first-time viewers a little wary, and will still remind the rest of us to keep out eyes open when we wade out into the ocean.